The Toronto International Film Festival staged one of its most impressive one-two punches in the fest's history on Saturday night with the world premieres of new films by Steven Spielberg and Rian Johnson, two movies that are going to be among the most beloved of 2022. In a weird way, they were a good fit in that they are both film genres that play smashingly to a crowd, a razor-sharp whodunit and a family drama tearjerker. This is exactly what TIFF wanted—massive crowds, satisfied by brilliant storytellers.
The story that Spielberg is telling this time is a variation on his own history, the closest we will ever get to a memoir, and you can see his whole heart up there on the screen. There were rumors he was worried about the premiere, nervous about how it would play, something that’s amazing to consider given his legacy. But it makes sense when you see the vulnerability in this moving ode to his family, especially his mother. Spielberg comes from a broken home, and a number of his best films have directly reflected his childhood, but this is like his love letter to those that made him—the friends, the sisters, the first crush, even the high school bully. And especially his mother, who Spielberg is trying to not forgive as much as truly see. And tell her, through movies, that he loves her still.
“The Fabelmans” opens in 1952 with Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and her husband Burt (Paul Dano) taking their son Sammy to see his first moving picture, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Sammy is both enraptured and terrified of the sequence in which a train hits a car and then derails. He is haunted by the imagery, and he tries to recreate it with the model train he gets for Hanukkah. It doesn’t quite work. It’s Mitzi who understands that he needs a camera to film it because then he can control it. It’s a fascinating idea that lingers throughout—the idea that filmmakers make movies to harness what can’t stop repeating in their minds. Ponder the visions and the history that Spielberg has put on film just so he could "control it."
Don’t worry. “The Fabelmans” isn’t a dry study on the purpose of filmmaking. It’s a family drama at its core, and it works just as well for people who don’t know anything about Spielberg’s true story. The film jumps forward a few times, and mostly settles down in the ‘60s with Sammy (now played by the phenomenal Gabriel LaBelle) in high school. Burt is a tech wizard, going from repairing electronics to designing the early days of computers with his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), one of those guys that's around the house so much that the kids call him uncle. The pursuit of better jobs takes the Fabelmans across the country, and Sammy’s love for moviemaking goes with them.
Sammy will learn that life may not be like the movies, but we use the movies to hold onto life, to help us understand it. Spielberg co-wrote “The Fabelmans” with his “West Side Story” scribe Tony Kushner, and the screenplay is a graceful gem, moving through different chapters of the life of this relatively average family that would just happen to produce an unaverage filmmaker. Sammy learns hard lessons about his family and there’s a stunning centerpiece sequence in which the very thing he loves is what forces him to look at everything around him in a new light. Judd Hirsch has an amazing single scene early too as a relative who warns Sammy that family and art don’t mix, and one wonders if that conversation is why it’s taken Spielberg so long to tell his own story, even if he’s also subtly been telling parts of it his whole career.
Of course, Spielberg knows how to cast and hire, and the team around him here is perfect, including masters like composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, both doing top-tier, impeccable work. As for the cast, Dano underplays the workaholic father who worries that his son’s hobby won’t get him a real job. Rogen is charming in his scenes as the outsider who admires Sammy's passion and wants to feed it. LaBelle is a breakout star in the making, especially in later scenes when he becomes even more centrally focused.
And then there’s Michelle Williams. It's like she knew that this is the part that will lead all the highlight reels for her career. She has been so good for decades now, but she goes for broke with Mitzi and absolutely captivates with every decision she makes. She fundamentally understands this character, a woman increasingly trapped in her own mundane existence and can’t comprehend why she’s not allowed happiness. She will break your heart. And then the power of movies will put it back together again.
Spielberg had never played a film at TIFF, but Rian Johnson is a veteran. Three years ago, he premiered “Knives Out” at the Princess of Wales in Toronto, and he returned tonight with its sequel “Glass Onion,” a film that really goes by the sequel model of “bigger, faster, more” theory of follow-ups. That’s not meant to be as much of a knock as it sounds, although there will be some who argue that the first film is breezier and that whodunits shouldn’t clock in at 140 minutes. They’re not really wrong, and yet there’s just SO much to savor in this movie—so many sharp turns, beautiful settings, clever lines, and playful performances. In many ways, it’s a more “fun” movie than the first—one can feel the joy everyone on set had as they stepped into Johnson’s puzzle of a screenplay and played their piece.
Don't worry. No spoilers will follow.
“Glass Onion” opens with a beauty of a set-up. A tech billionaire named Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is inviting his old friends to a murder mystery party on a Greek isle. He calls them his “disruptors,” people who don’t play by the rules and often get into trouble for doing so. There’s model Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), who has made enough social media blunders that her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) has taken away her phone. There’s Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a macho Twitch streamer who likes to talk about boobs and guns and brings his girlfriend (Madelyn Cline) along on the trip. Her name is Whiskey. There’s the politician who Miles has bankrolled to do his bidding, Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn). And there’s tech whiz Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), whom Miles faxes wild ideas in the middle of the night and expects Lionel to make them real. Oh, and there’s Cassandra Brand (the scene-stealing Janelle Monae), the other half of the company that Bron used to make his billions before selling her out. Finally, there’s an unexpected guest at the party, a man that Miles claims to have not even invited, one Mr. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
That’s where the plot description will stop, although it would be honestly difficult to spoil this film in 1,000 words or less because it has that many twists and turns. Even the identity of the victim (or possibly victims) is unexpected, much less the final results of Blanc’s latest investigation. Suffice to say, this is another case in which everyone on this island wants someone else on this island dead. Blanc is wading into a sea of rich, spoiled, stupid piranha, and Johnson is once again unpacking how wealth and fame do not equal intelligence or decency—in fact, the opposite is often true. The first film was about old money, and the second film is about new money, the kind often granted to the most vicious and luckiest people over those who deserve it.
It's all just so much fun. There’s a contagious aspect to the ensemble in that one can easily tell that they just had a blast making this movie on a Greek isle with dialogue as incredibly smart as Johnson's. Norton is over-the-top hysterical as the man with enough money to buy literally anything but too little intelligence to know what to do with any of it. Monae will widely be considered the MVP, and that’s valid, but there’s not a single weak link here, which is also a testament to how expertly Johnson directs these kind of ensemble pieces. I really hope he does it every three years.